Magazine

Viewpoint: Why Laura Johnson's riot case makes parents uneasy

Laura Johnson (left) leaves court with her mother Lindsay Johnson

Laura Johnson, millionaire's daughter and university student, has been sentenced to two years in prison for her role in the riots last summer. This conviction - one of more than 1,000 from the riots - strikes a particular chord, says counsellor Karen Richardson.

The question on every parent's lips on hearing of the prosecution of 20-year-old Laura Johnson for her part in a late night crime spree during last summer's riots would no doubt have been: "How could this happen to an intelligent girl from a wealthy family home?"

Laura was educated at two high-performing schools, was a former school prefect, an A-grade student and had completed her first year at Exeter University.

I can sympathise with Laura's parents and relate to the nightmare in which they find themselves. I know because I have been there myself.

I am a mother of three. The youngest, who is 20, surprised the family by misbehaving in a not dissimilar way to Laura Johnson - and, like Laura, found herself before a judge at the Old Bailey.

Any parent finding themselves in this, or a similar situation, is bound to ask themselves: "Where did I go wrong?"

As parents, we have traditionally believed that the best gift we can give our children is a good education. Many of us do all that we possibly can to get them into the best schools. And many parents think that by encouraging youngsters to develop healthy and happy social relationships with their peers, they will be, to some extent, immune from what they perceive to be negative influences in the communities that often surround their homes.

However, no matter what precautions a parent may take, we can't fully safeguard our children's environment and behaviour. The media, internet and the mobile phone have played a part in undermining many of the traditional parental influences. Each contributes in its own way to the free access of often harmful information, enabling youngsters to bypass the traditional safe-guards that parents put in place.

Most of the adolescent students attending my counselling sessions are high achievers who, despite attaining good academic results, suffer from low self-esteem resulting in any one or a combination of the following: binge drinking, taking illegal drugs, suffering from eating disorders such as bulimia, self-harming and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Some parents have more recently realised that the traditional academic model may have its flaws in our modern society, and that the pursuit of academic success is not the be all and end all. They are now opting to send their children to schools that offer more rounded education, including social skills, with less focus placed on achieving high examination grades and top ratings in the schools league tables.

These schools seek to develop a more challenging and inspirational education, with the adolescent student's self-esteem as a priority.

Laura Johnson may have left her secondary school for university with a plethora of academic achievements behind her, but it is evident from her behaviour last summer and from the company she chose at the time that she was not feeling good about herself. Generally, people who feel good about themselves - those who have high self-esteem - treat themselves and others with respect.

During her trial, Laura said she had been a mental health outpatient, had attempted suicide by overdosing on tablets on several occasions, and had been admitted to hospital after three of these incidents. From this we can deduce that Laura was suffering from self-esteem issues, which more than likely led her to depression. The court was told that Laura had been prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills.

Adolescents in similar circumstances who suffer from low self-esteem often self-medicate with alcohol and various drugs to numb their symptoms of anxiety and ultimately depression. Often this is the other way around, and the depression is a direct result of the use of alcohol and drugs.

I imagine that like me with my daughter, many parents are all too aware when their children are hurtling out of control. They do all they can to try to stop it at home and, when this fails, seek professional help.

There are certain tell-tale signs of adolescents losing self-esteem and going off-track that parents can look out for. These most frequently include problems maintaining friendships, rather than problems making friends.

They will also be drawn into abusive relationships and friendships. The peer group which the adolescent is keeping company with becomes the centre of their universe, demanding their conformity with the group's rules and objectives.

In Laura's case, the court was told that she had befriended a convicted crack cocaine dealer and thief - Emmanuel Okubote, known as T-Man - and his gang of youths. Jurors were told that she chauffeured Okubote and his friends on 8 August last year, while they went on a rampage of electrical stores in London.

Often the question is asked about which plays a greater role in the development of the adolescent and a predictor of future behaviour - parental or peer influence. Research has shown that parental influence declines up to about the age of 12, after which time peer group pressure increases and dominates behaviour in the late teens. It is often this latter pressure and desire for conformity which leads youngsters to behave in a way their parents would never have anticipated.

With this in mind, I sympathise with Laura Johnson's parents who have had to endure the humiliation and embarrassment of their daughter's trial. Like me, they would have probably spent the night before sentencing mentally preparing themselves for the worst and packing their daughter's suitcase with the essentials for prison.

And like me, they would probably have held on to the glimmer of hope that their daughter would be given a non-custodial sentence. My own daughter was not sent to prison.

The Johnson will have held out the hope that Laura would have been spared a custodial sentence and been able to return home with them, and that the trial and related publicity would have been sufficient to bring the young lady to her senses.

But right now, the dreams and hopes they have for their daughter are probably but a distant memory.